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Harem Girls


Our Very Own “Non-Arabs Got Talent” Show

by Zaina Brown
posted December 18, 2018

The following is an excerpt from Fire In The Belly, a memoir by Zaina Brown about the thrills and hard knocks of dancing in the Middle East and traveling solo in Africa, Asia, and Arabia. It is set to be released in January 2019 – follow on Facebook ( and Instagram ( for publication updates and more sneak peeks!

Abdulrahman, a Syrian club owner, was a living nightlife cliché: Only interested in women and money, in no particular order. What set him apart from other dirtbags in Dubai was his exceptional lack of education and good sense. When he first bought the club with his crisp new money, he mistook it for a candy shop. He would show up knocking on the doors of female singers, who then threw a fit and threatened to go back to Lebanon. In order to work together, my agent Panos had to housetrain this puppy.

He gave Abdulrahman a copy of Nightclub Managing for Dummies, but the poor thing couldn’t read. With a helpful picture book, he finally learned the basic principle: Keep business and personal entertainment separate.

One Thursday night, Panos summoned a bunch of bellydancers to join him at Abdulrahman’s club. The task was to show him some new faces, and of course to decorate Panos’ table. Only the top-top girls didn’t need to bother. I was just happy I wouldn’t be the only dancer there.

The last time I accompanied Panos to this nightclub, we had sat opposite of Abdulrahman and a Moroccan hooker. The men talked. Abdulrahman fed the girl cherries off the fruit platter while she egged him on, twirling her tongue around each cherry before taking it into her mouth. It was hard to keep a straight face watching this spectacle from front row seats. Even Panos was taken aback, and once we were in the elevator, commented on Abdulrahman’s shamelessness. Walking through the hotel lobby at midnight in full makeup, tight jeans and a skimpy top, with the hundred-year-old Panos in tow, I was painfully aware of how I looked. I silently declared I was just going to some business meetings with my boss. It was perfectly believable in the eyes of no one.

Like Panos, Abdulrahman had a thing for tall women. This disqualified a few fantastic Brazilian dancers, but Panos had insisted they come along anyway. The girls took it all in good stride.
“Maybe when I grow up, I can work here,” one remarked.

Haifa WehbeOne by one, Panos ordered us onto the stage. Like obedient little harem girls, we danced to impress the sultan, so he would let us live another day. It was our very own “Non-Arabs Got Talent” show. Panos beamed with pride watching us.

Afterwards, I excused myself into the crowded bathroom. While I washed my hands I glanced at the girl next to me fixing her makeup. She’d had lots of work done on her face, creating a vague resemblance to a certain Lebanese songbird.

“You look like Haifa Wehbe!” I said, thinking it would probably make her happy.

The girl turned to kiss me on both cheeks, as if we knew each other.

“I have a lot of work for you,” she whispered into my ear.

“Oh no, thanks. I’m just…on vacation.”

She looked at me perplexed. I returned to the table.

If anyone earned themselves a contract with Abdulrahman because of that night, I never heard a peep about it. It didn’t work that way. We all knew Panos decided who went where. He told restaurants that the dancer they specifically asked for wasn’t available, even though they were, if he wanted to give the contract to someone else. As always, "I will do my best to find a contract for you" was his favorite line. It meant "This conversation is over."

Thankfully, even though Abdulrahman never gave me a second look, work had many ways of finding me.

“Fire in the Belly” by Zaina Brown is set to be released in January 2019 – follow on Facebook ( and Instagram ( for publication updates and more sneak peeks!


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